The world’s busiest airport has descended into chaos as President Trump’s government shutdown drags into its fourth week.
Travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport are reporting hours-long waits at domestic terminals, missed flights due to lack of security personnel, and the closure of checkpoints across the airport due to a lack of TSA agents.
For one Atlanta air traffic controller, the airport, which processes more than 100 million passengers per year, has become “a total shitshow.”
“Everything is a mess here. No one knows who is open, who is working, or what terminals are functioning,” the federal air traffic controller, who has worked out of ATL for 10 years, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “It’s a total shitshow that won’t be solved until the shutdown is over.”
Chaos in Atlanta is just the shutdown’s latest blow to air travel, as the past week saw the rise of TSA agents and other federal air personnel calling out sick rather than work without a paycheck. Some security screeners have already quit over the furlough with no end in sight.
The result has been a security-staffing shortage, causing massive travel delays and the closure of terminals and security checkpoints at several major airports. Atlanta International Airport reported long lines on Monday morning, estimating wait times of up to three hours at three checkpoints in its domestic terminal.
Holly Lyle, a 23-year-old traveling to San Francisco for work on Monday, told The Daily Beast how she arrived to the airport almost three hours before her flight, expecting delays.
Several hours later, Lyle finally got through security. And she missed her flight.
“I arrived at 7:05 a.m., and was directed to several different lines,” she recounted. “I didn’t get through security until about 10:25 a.m., and I missed my flight that was at 9:40.”
“TSA was doing their best, but I know they were absolutely overwhelmed,” Lyle added. “Everyone I spoke to missed their flight too. I don’t think anyone was prepared for just how bad it would be.”
“I’m not sure how many agents there were, but it seemed like about half of the security lanes were closed,” Lyle said, noting that security lines spanned multiple floors and lobbies as a result of the logjam.
Indeed, CNN reporter Omar Jimenez tweeted stunning video Monday morning of one of the airport’s security lines snaking its way through a ticketing lobby all the way back to the baggage-claim section near the terminal’s exit.
“I was in line at least two-and-a-half hours,” said Aaron Gould Sheinin, an Atlanta resident who also missed his flight this morning due to long security lines. “Once we finally got to the front of the TSA line, there were only maybe two or three screening lines open.”
Sheinin, who rescheduled for a 5:40 p.m. flight—nearly seven hours after his originally scheduled departure—said that while “the problem just cascades,” passengers and TSA agents alike are seemingly “taking it well.”
TSA spokesperson Jim Gregory confirmed to The Daily Beast on Monday the agency is now working with the Atlanta airport and its airlines “to maximize all available operational resources at the airport.”
But the air traffic controller who spoke with The Daily Beast remains skeptical that much can be done to mitigate the staffing issues. And in the event of an emergency, that could mean disaster.
“Our colleagues inside the airport, like TSA agents, are deciding at the last minute whether to come in or not,” he said. “That means that as the day goes on, the airport is trying to guess which checkpoints can stay open, which need to close for lack of personnel, and make sure everyone is calm so no emergencies happen.”
“If there is an emergency,” he added, “then we all don’t have the bandwidth to handle it. We are working at one of the busiest airports, so one wrong mistake and something terrible might happen.”
Over the weekend, officials at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport announced the closure of a security checkpoint in one terminal due to a TSA staffing shortage. That checkpoint remained closed on Monday. Additionally, last week, Miami International Airport announced that one of its smaller terminals would close early each day until the shutdown ended.
The nation’s estimated 51,000 TSA agents have been manning checkpoints without pay since the shutdown first began on Dec. 22, and like many other federal employees, they missed their first paycheck on Friday.
But because they’re considered “essential” employees to national security, they’re legally required to keep working. As the The Daily Beast previously reported, many have started to protest by calling in sick, and some quitting their jobs altogether. And as the shutdown continues this week, with no end in sight, the sick-outs are only expected to continue.
As of Monday, the rate of TSA agent absences has more than doubled the rate of a year ago. “This morning, TSA experienced a national rate of 7.6 percent unscheduled absences compared to a 3.2 percent rate one year ago, Monday, January 15, 2018,” TSA spokesman Michael Bilello tweeted on Monday.
Elise Durham, the Atlanta airport's communications director, told The Daily Beast that “Monday are always a busy travel day.” However, she confirmed, "We are down a few security lines because of the shutdown, but things are moving pretty efficiently.”
While the TSA experiences a mass exodus of staffers, their colleagues in air traffic control are taking a different approach to the shutdown.
A union of the federal air traffic controllers—who are also working for free during the shutdown—has begun a campaign “educate the public about what is happening” by passing out leaflets in about 60 airports across the country.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association filed a lawsuit against the administration on Friday, demanding its members get paid for the time they have worked since the shutdown.
“Air traffic controllers are frustrated, upset and feel completely devastated about this shutdown,” Nick Daniels, an air traffic control specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration and a member of the union, told The Daily Beast on Monday. “We feel backed into a corner because we are bound by our duty, but also have no way to paying our bills at the end of the month.”
Daniels, who is leading the leaflet campaign at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, estimated that hundreds of air traffic controllers will participate in the demonstration, as many feel this is their last hope before drastic measures need to be taken.
“People are going to start to make dramatic choices, like quitting their careers as air traffic controllers and starting all over,” Daniels explained. “If air traffic controllers start to quit, it could result in airports shutting down.”
He added: “If there are not enough controllers to handle the amount of flights, safety will take priority over efficiency and airports will have no choice but to start canceling flights. If enough air traffic controllers quit, airports will have to shut down.”
The union confirmed to The Daily Beast that about 30 air traffic controllers participated in the campaign in Atlanta, saying air travelers are been “very supportive” despite the frustrating wait times and are “empathizing with the difficult situation we are in.”
“Our men and women take great pride in their jobs and will be at work keeping the skies safe,” Dan McCabe, an air traffic controller leader the Atlanta campaign, told The Daily Beast on Monday.
“Something has to be done to protect these employees because there seems to be no end in sight. It’s a hopeless feeling.”